By Joseph M. Laufer


Outside of the visit of the comet itself, the Halley social event of the year was the British tribute to the second Astronomer Royal on his birthday.  As guests of the Halley’s Comet Society from across the sea, and having been awed by the trappings of Royalty, it is difficult to give a totally objective review of the occasion.


The event, which took place on October 29th, 1985, was a benefit for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme – a favorite charity of the Queen’s husband, for whom Princess Anne was standing in that evening.  The money raised would provide scholarships for deserving youngsters in England.


My wife, Penny, and I were among the handful of folks chosen to be in the Royal receiving line.  We felt honored, as we were not only the only Americans so chosen, but we were the only non-British in the line.  In addition to Professor F. Graham Smith, F.R.S, the current Astronomer Royal, three other couples (directly involved with the sponsorship and production of the gala) were presented to Princess Anne by Brian Harpur, founder of the Halley’s Comet Society, as cameras flashed and video cameras rolled.

Penny Laufer, Patrick Moore, Joe, Kurt & Kerry Laufer
at the Royal reception after the Halley Gala

Our two older children, Kurt and Kerry, were already seated as we entered the hall with the Royal entourage with the playing of the British National Anthem.  The event took place in the large modern concert hall of the Wembley Conference Center.  I would estimate that well over 5000 people were in attendance.


The scope of the production, conceived, devised and produced by Barry J. Mishon, can be compared to the entertainment components of an Academy Awards show, the Miss America Pageant or a star-studded benefit variety show in Lincoln Center or the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – but with a central theme: the return of Halley’s Comet – 1985!  The show contained readings, orchestral, marshal and coral music, bits of vaudeville, dance, fashion, comedy and a laser light show.  The fact that the performers donated their time and had only one formal rehearsal (the afternoon of the performance) allows us to excuse some of the missed cues and minor technical difficulties (primarily with the sound equipment) which marred the otherwise first-class, high quality performance.


The New Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Antony Hopkins, was outstanding;  the Royal Corps of Transport Band was excellent, as was the Paradise Dance Orchestra.  The London Chorale and the two dance companies were also quite good.  Continuity was provided by a series of excerpts of verse and poetry read by a host of famous British entertainers.  Credit should be given to those responsible for selecting the readings, as this could have been a cumbersome element in the show – but the texts chosen were brief and interesting, and nicely integrated into the total show.


In order to add a bit of spice and variety, the music of 1910 (the year of the last appearance of Halley’s Comet) was inserted between the groups of readings.  “Put Your Arms Around Me Honey”, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart”, and “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” were among the thirteen songs of 1910 sung and performed in the vaudeville settings of the period.  Claire Rayner was a showstopper with her Sophie Tucker-like rendition of “Some of These Days”.


The program opened with a majestic rendition of “The Giotto’s Theme” performed by the New Symphony Orchestra, punctuated and enhanced by a magnificent, futuristic laser light show  (“Giotto” being the name given to the European Space Agency’s comet probe, named after the medieval painter who painted a comet as the Star of Bethlehem in 1301, a year in which Halley’s Comet appeared).  A newly composed “Halley’s Comet March”, performed by the Royal Corps of Transport Band with the help of composer Patrick Moore (popular British astronomer, writer and TV star) rivaled the “Halley’s Comet Rag” (1910) performed by the same group.


A delightful fashion show, with fashions modeled by fourteen dazzling British stage, television and motion picture stars (including the fabled Koo Stark), in an extravagant production number to the accompaniment of “Come to the Ball”, came near the end of the show.


The Astronomer Royal, Professor F. Graham Smith, was presented to the audience and he, in turn, presented the “star of the evening”, none other than Halley’s Comet, captured the night before on film.


Special credit should be given to Ned Sherrin, the Master of Ceremonies of the show.  He introduced a great deal of humor to the program and helped the performers (and the audience) through some of the awkward technical problems.  Bob Hope or Johnny Carson couldn’t have done a better job.


The show was certainly a theatrical extravaganza and will long be remembered by the audience as a fitting celebration of the “one-in-a-lifetime” return of Halley’s Comet.  If there was anything missing, it was reference to Edmond Halley.  It would have been fitting had more mention been given to him and even some sort of tribute to the man whose 329th birthday was being celebrated.


For a family from Vincentown, New Jersey, USA, the Royal Gala was a once-in-a-lifetime glimpse at British Royalty and live British entertainment close-up – something that will long be remembered.


Halley’s Comet Watch Newsletter – Volume 4, Number 6 – December, 1985



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